Belgian lawmakers block proposal to split country

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BRUSSELS, Nov 22 (Reuters) Lawmakers from Belgium's Flemish north and French-speaking south teamed up today to block a bill to split the country in a vote that many ease tension between them and clear the way for a new government.

Belgium has languished since June 10 elections without a cabinet, and coalition talks between Flemish Christian Democrats and Liberals and their francophone counterparts have stalled over the Flemish side's unmet demands for more autonomy.

But the vast bulk of Dutch-speaking Flemish members of parliament dismissed a bill today brought by the far-right Vlaams Belang to split Belgium. Members of the small separatist N-VA and three Flemish Christian Democrats abstained.

The vote prevented the Flemish nationalists' bill from being passed on to a commission for discussion.

''It has effectively landed in the waste basket,'' a spokesman for the chamber said.

Flemish demands for more autonomy, although stopping short of separation, have met with a firm ''non'' from French-speakers.

Francophone parties had been looking for a conciliatory sign from their Dutch-speaking counterparts to revive coalition talks suspended after the Flemish drove forward a controversial bill to split the electoral area around Brussels.

Joelle Milquet, head of the French-speaking equivalent of the Christian Democrats, told Belgian television the vote was a positive sign.

The presidents of the two houses of parliament, the chamber and the senate, are due to report back to King Albert tomorrow after he charged them with establishing whether mainstream parties were open to discussing a reform of the state.

Such a reform, to give greater powers such as over taxation in regions, would require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The would-be prime minister, Flemish Christian Democrat leader Yves Leterme, was holding bilateral talks with other party chiefs today evening.

REUTERS TB BST

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